How to eliminate tension in the thumb of the playing hand

June 29, 2007 at 12:19 AM · Lately I have developed the bad habit of griping or squeezing the neck with my thumb, which has led to pain in the final joint of my thumb while playing. I am working on eliminating this tension, but would at the same time appreciate any advice or thoughts others have to offer. If it matters when considering this, I do not use a shoulder rest.

Replies (23)

June 29, 2007 at 01:17 AM · I think everyone tends to grip the violin neck; it's something that has to be unlearned.

The best exercise I learned to help in this way is to simply practice scales (or whatever piece you're into) WITHOUT THE THUMB. Move your thumb away from the neck completely and resist the urge to clamp down. Get used to the light pressure that your fingers exert as they press on the strings. Eventually, your brain will unlearn the instinctive need to use the thumb to counteract the downward pressure of your fingers.

Hope this helps! :-)

June 29, 2007 at 01:34 AM · Timothy,

Thank you so much for the reply. What you have suggested seems well nigh impossible, but I once thought the same of so much of which I now play with ease. I will do as you suggest.

Thanks again,

Chris

June 29, 2007 at 01:40 AM · Playing completely w.o. the thumb is quite difficult, and can lead to other tensions elsewhere. I would recommend the following. As Timothy says, do practice slow scales, or other slow passages. As you do, gently glide the thumb back and forth along the neck, but keep light contact, so that at one end of its trajectory it's pointing to the scroll, and at the other end, towards the bridge. This way, you still have the thumb as a counter balance. But it's impossible to do this excersise with a gripping thumb. If you're gripping hard, you can't glide it back and forth. And if you're giding, you're not gripping.

June 29, 2007 at 03:14 AM · I deal with this too--to the point of having to play in short spurts at times. The big thing I think, will be in slowing down with the scales. My 1st teacher was a proponent of scroll against a corner on a rag to release all tension and do as the first responder--without thumb. I'm starting to work on Raphael's approach tonight.

Also

Besides slowing down and getting the tension gone, I think it is worth remembering that violin is one of the most focused things one can do; and, when the sensation of lightness is successfully ingrained, it also becomes a part of the necessary focus thinking as well. We all grip, and have to learn not to grip.

June 29, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Raphael is right about the possibility of inducing tension in other parts of the body by not using the left thumb (I've never tried his thumb-shifting exercise, though).

Whatever way you approach the matter, I think it would help to understand what's happening and what one hopes to eventually achieve:

Instinctively, we press down with a fair amount of pressure with our fingers on the strings. The thumb, also instinctively, exerts an equal counter pressure. At the same time, we rationally think that the left hand should hold up the violin. So, instinct and reason both tell us to do the same thing: grip the violin neck.

However, the violin is designed to fit snugly (BUT NOT TIGHTLY) between the chin and shoulder. The left hand (and entire left arm, for that matter, from the shoulder to the tips of the all the fingers) should be relaxed and free to move over the violin's surface.

It is hoped that, with proper practice, the violinist learns to trust his/her instrument and allow his/her hands to freely glide up and down the violin's neck and fingerboard.

The left thumb should be a guide, not a support.

Hope this helps :-)

June 29, 2007 at 12:46 PM · I tend never to give advice on technical matters on violinist.com, since as you know I'm not a pro. If I do give advice I'm sometimes trodden on by pros who think my advice is lousy, so, with all that in mind...(as Itzhak Perlman once said on a video).

I don't have a tight or rigid thumb. It glides easily up and down the neck as Raphael mentions. What I do is that the neck mostly rests on the middle joint of my thumb, and also at the same time the base of my index finger which has a slightly raised, soft sort of natural lump (where the crease is). I form a relaxed 'cradle' with my hand, or if you like a 'V' between thumb and index finger, which can go up and down the neck easily. The thumb is nearly always further up the neck than the index finger; usually not side-by-side.

There is always a space between the bottom of the neck and the join between my thumb and hand. I call it (or called it, back in the days when I was a rascal unconventional violin teacher) the 'mouse hole', where a little mouse always lives, and you don't want to squish the poor little fellow (I picked up this name from another teacher BTW).

But that is only the basic, default setting. My hand changes according to need. My thumb might point forward more or back more as needed, at times even layed out somewhat under the neck momentarily. I find it a natural and comfortable thing. I've seen Heifetz' hand do the same sort of thing, and basically my hand, as much as I can humanly tell as a non-pro, is modelled on what I see him doing (or I try to model it that way, within a personal perspective. After all, my hand is different to his).

I can also play very well with the base of my index finger not touching the neck. This took me about 3 years to learn, but I went about it slowly and patiently, never tiring my thumb that I can remember. Another trick in my quiver full of shoulder-rest-less tricks (and you need them, or at least I do), is to do what Corwin Slack described in his blog of a few weeks ago, where the violin neck rests against the base of the finger primarily, giving the thumb a rest (which it won't need if you have the right sort of technique happening). To do this I swing my elbow out to the left a bit more, a la Kreisler. Correct elbow position under the violin or slightly to either side is fairly crucial at all times to me anyway (and apart from changing to a different string, etc).

Oh, and just one other thing...(like Columbo used to say, if you remember him on TV). I probably have slightly unusual thumbs. I remember a friend laughing at me, watching me click my fingers, as in hailing someone, or when you suddenly get a bright idea. She thought I had a strange technique for doing it. I never figured out what she meant, but I gather my thumbs are slightly longer than normal. I can't make a proper Karate style fist, for instance. My thumbs just stick out too far.

Last but not least, I would advise learning to play in many different positions as soon as possible (eg. 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc), and to try to move around the violin a bit, or a lot, depending. That helps give the thumb a varying job to do. You want to think of your thumb as a bored person sitting at a desk. Give that employee an interesting, varying job. He/she will love you for it.

June 29, 2007 at 03:57 AM · It does Timothy. I was just playing with my 'simply focus not to grip mentioned above'. I'm working with Raphael's advice about ditching the shoulder rest, and was also focusing on the chin as not leaning on the instrument.

While tonight, I've been playing for pleasure alot because I was down for a few days waiting on strings, I'm 'really' looking forward to getting back to those comforting etudes to let me further this.

So Chris, in training your lightness of balance, and thumb, also consider trying some etudes as you go along that are well memorized so you are free to mix up the exercise or method you choose better.

While I'm trying to learn to walk and chew bubble gum against all odds, I found my sounding point control will need revamped a little because of the ditched shoulder rest and new lightness--said another way: I was probably gripping everything previously, and 'forcing' my SP control as well?

June 29, 2007 at 04:58 AM · When you learn how to hold your hand in a way where the architecture of the hand is supported, then your thumb is free to move. If you try putting your hand on a table and then try to balance your arm's weight on your pinkey, you will notice that it helps to turn out the elbow away from the body and have the wrist high enough that you can relax the shoulder because the pinkey is architecturally supported. Then the thumb is also relaxed and has free range of movement. Can you transfer this to the violin?

June 29, 2007 at 12:10 PM · I checked with what I actually do, violin in hand. What I found is that my thumb is often almost directly opposite the base of the index finger. I didn't think I did that, but I do. When I go up beyond 3rd position of course the thumb is no longer as I described in my post above. I also noticed that I sometimes vary the place on my thumb that contacts the violin neck. Sometimes I use the end joint of the thumb, on the fleshy pad, with the last joint curved inward slightly. This seems to be to give the inner surface of my middle joint a bit of a rest from supporting the violin all the time. So, in short, I seem to use a technique that varies the thumb placement quite a lot.

I don't know if what I write here is any use to anyone. It probably isn't, but if I have managed to help someone, well and good.

June 29, 2007 at 01:00 PM · Hey Jon !

you wrote the Bible!

Wooow!

June 29, 2007 at 08:51 PM · When I orginally learned to play (about age 9), I was taught not to grip the violin or even curve the thumb. The thumb was straight and the neck rested on the thumb joint (not the base of the thumb). The inside joint was not facing the opposing fingers, but sort of half-turned towards me. I relearned holding the violin by curving the thumb when I was in college, but by then I was so used to NOT gripping the neck with the thumb that the curved thumb was not as much of a problem and I was able to shift ok.

If that made any sense at all, you might want to try some practice with the thumb straight up and not bent in any way. It is impossible to grip the neck in that position, and it might get you used to the feel of holding the violin without a debilitatingly tense grip.

Just a thought.

Sandy

June 29, 2007 at 09:28 PM · My teacher had me play an etude (like Kreutzer 9 I think) and every beat, tap my thumb on the neck of the violin. It was annoying to keep doing that, but it I don't squeeze anymore.

June 29, 2007 at 09:56 PM · Just so you know, Jon, I copied your posts (with a little editing so that it made sense for my purpose) into my word document on this subject. I try to keep technical files on the major issues and technical problems and how people approach solutions (and some of the other suggestions in this thread). It is my cheat sheet for teaching and a good reference for myself. So your advice is not useless and although not everyone should be giving advice on questions on this site's more technical issues....I feel that no matter how advanced or qualified the person is, if they are getting out their instruement and analyzing and thinking and working it out for themeselves with such effort in order to answer someone's question, their reply is definately worth reading. Advice is just that. Not commands or orders. Beginners can tell me very helpful things sometimes that I haven't considered for ages. Or at all.

Sals,

Jennifer

June 29, 2007 at 11:19 PM · I think that if one watches Oistrakh play, they will see that his thumb is literally all over the place. So given this, and the fact that all hands are different, I think it may be best to just first bring the base joint into active focus as one plays along, with exercises to experience non-gripping action.

Irregardless if 'my' thumb is curved or not, I can only not grip as long as I'm focusing on not-gripping. With that said though, extraneous exercises like keeping the thumb straight as mentioned, the balancing exercise, and other things that have been mentioned would be good allies in getting there....

I've watched the most accomplished people--or some of them--shaking it out, for lack of better words.

The greater truth for me, knowing all this, is trying not to play beyond my abilities probably.

June 29, 2007 at 11:37 PM · So I just stumbled through all the Bach I have worked on in the past year on the viola (the viola causes much more problems in the hand for me than the violin because of weigth and size, but the technical problem/question is the same) because Ifigured it would be perfect for trying to isolate how my hand works and places itself...if there is still tension there.

The answer was....I'm pretty much o.k. (not totally tension free-but no death grip and I can take the thumb off the fingerboard sometimes without disturbing too much) unless....

OH GOD HERE COME THE CHORDS AND DOUBLE STOPS AND I"M SQUEEZING LIKE CRAZY MAKE IT STOP!!!!

Yea. So... how to avoid tension in the thumb in Bach, specifically on the chords where all the other balance points are already being used to play a note and the hand is kind of squished down more and the thumb is all on its own?

Oh...and for the thumb tension issue for me, I simply (well, not so simply) altered two things. In certain spots I play with much flatter fingers, bringing the hand curve backwards to some extent and tilting my hand backwards more (little hands. big viola. me cavewoman.)

The other one was to move the thumb across from second finger, which also kind of causes the same change of shape.

Having a fourth finger way smaller in proportion to the rest of my fingers makes it necessary to rock a bit, though, because with flatter fingers and hand tilted back, my poor fourth finger cant reach anything. So the hand kind of rocks forwards for that.

But I'm mystified by how chords can be tension free.

Jennifer

June 30, 2007 at 12:10 AM · I'd like to amend what I said above. When I spoke of the difficulty of playing completely w.o. the thumb, I was thinking particularly about the 1st and 2nd positions. Once you get to the 3rd, and can use the palm of your hand gently against the instrument as a partial support (-an approach adcocated by Freidman, Spivakov and others-) it's not hard to take the thumb away. Once you're in the very high positions, it's again different, and there's very little room either to take the thumb away, or to glide it back and forth.

I devised the gliding technique for some students who needed it - and it worked very well. I haven't had this particular problem for many years. But I once did. It went away after the Summer I studied with Rosand. One of his approaches, which ties in with not using a big, attached shoulder rest, is to have the elbow well under the violin, and the hand well over the fingerboard, so that the fingers can drop down naturally and comfortably. When the hand is more over, the thumb tends to be more down, and simply presses less! Gravity, itself, comes to our aid in this position. I go into more detail on my website - http://rkviolin.com. click on "writings", then "fundamentals".

June 30, 2007 at 01:02 AM · Bouncing off Raphael's remarks, I just finished my first warm-ups--before the phone rang, and like Jennifer had good success staying away from the death grip.

It seems as if relaxed flowing works together as a system, as much as individual parts--the elbow, the wrist, the hand and etc...uh, the breathing.. Being intently involved with ditching my shoulder rest, I am acutely aware of staying relaxed and allowing myself to trust my instrument's balance. The trickle down effect, is having enough focus to keep my thumb relaxed, at least in simpler ways.

Maybe this is just where I'm at in my own development, and a does not equal b or cause c, but there is something very good about finding a completely relaxed fluid everything notwithstanding Jennifer's insights about Bach and the difficulty of chords and so forth--My remarks truly focus on just basics--truly.

I followed Raph's advice about keeping the thumb straight--or I think it was his, but also allowed myself to curve when it felt natural but at the same time 'willing' the inner thumb joint relaxed. This seems to be working for me, in that I also threw down on the little intensified Lully's Gavotte I play energetically to make me feel the music.

The better proof however, is that today, after jamming last night pretty intently, all's well in the southpaw.

Finally, remembering watching Oistrakh for tuck and hand position some months ago, as mentioned above, I know that reality will be finding not zero tension, but as close to as possible--far closer than I am currently, but not as far away as I was three months ago to this goal.

I think Chris will find this true too ultimately.

June 30, 2007 at 12:58 PM · Reading back over what I wrote, I realised I didn't offer any exercises for strengthening/ relaxing the thumb. My excuse is that perhaps the only exercise I would advocate is patience, and keep trying. Keep playing music and any exercise you can find. I like the sound of the exercise where you tap the violin neck with your thumb, because that mobility is a good start.

I think a certain strengthening of the muscles in the thumb is needed. That can only come with time and practice.

Thanks for your nice comments, Jennifer!

June 30, 2007 at 02:50 AM · Thanks, Albert, for trying to follow my approach. Actually, I don't think I've said anything here about the thumb being straight, or bent - so far. As a basic starting position, I generally favor the thumb being somewhat back, and pointing to the scroll, relatively straight, and lending a sort of triangular position to the hand. HOWEVER, it depends where I'm going, and where I am coming from. Have I just shifted, or crossed strings - or am I about to? Am I dealing with an awkward chord? These and other factors will temporarily affect the position of my thumb. The most important consideration for the thumb - and indeed for everything else - is FLEXIBILITY. I sometimes tell students that with relaxation and finding just the right angle at just the right time, you have more than half the battle for a good violin technique. Easier said than done, I know!

June 30, 2007 at 03:41 AM · No Raphael--kudos to you, but for clear balance and posture instructions in ditching my shoulder rest rather than grip, on your site.

Yes--it was someone else who mentioned straight thumb. Sorry.

I am finding a/some correlation with grip though also, in balancing my instrument now that I'm without my shoulder rest. It has me thinking that perhaps even if one is going to play with a shoulder rest, they should first at least learn without it.

July 2, 2007 at 03:12 PM · Laurie has graciously posted an article I wrote about holding the violin. It is under the FAQ section of violinist.com. I go into more detail about why, or why not, to use a shoulder rest, or pad, or just a little something to keep the violin from slipping. I don't really advocate using or not using a rest, just examining each player and deciding individually what will work best.

I would appreciate any comments or suggestions about the article.

July 5, 2007 at 09:49 PM · Did you ever think that if you practice a lot you get tired so much that you need to find ways of playing that require less effort.

I mean... it comes also with the quantity of practice in a natural way...

This doesn`t mean that you don`t have to do anything consciously against useless effort... but...

July 5, 2007 at 11:10 PM · I'm finding that relaxed effective elbow tuck frees the wrist then thumb much better, as in what I was talking about earlier about systems of muscles/machines etc.

What I did was to use a big wall size mirror to practice awhile each day now; and, that helped me find my tuck. Then I sensed any strain, and further adjusted from there. Make sure the head and jawline isn't adding much weight as well--see Raphael's website. The final result was excellent fluidity all over.

For me, this partly all started with being frustrated trying to get my arm under the instrument, and a single comment from someone else about seeing my elbow. Sooo: tuck yes, strain--NO!.

Almost forgot--keep that wrist straight and controlled but relaxed too.... Some go a little concave (a little) when shifting way up, but....

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